CSS Tricks is currently running a poll on the “line between web apps and web sites”. As I’ve been building both for years now, personally I do think there is a difference between the two. So I decided to have a go a defining each in its simplest form.
The purpose of a web app is to help the user achieve a given task. For example sell goods online, help do your finances or listen to music.
The purpose of a web site is to provide information about a given topic or topics. For example a personal blog, company website or a hotel brochure.
I think the problem lies in translating Apple’s idea of an “app” (in this case a phone app) to the web. Web “apps” aren’t always so neatly packaged and well defined as phone “apps”. I think on the web there is scope for “apps” and “sites” to overlap, which wouldn’t happen on a phone for instance.
Is it helpful to distinguish between the two? Personally I think that, at the moment at least, the distinction isn’t overly helpful. Most end users will still think in terms of web “sites”. It will be interesting to see if in the future the distinction between web “apps” and “sites” grows apart.